The annual ritual of SCC cuts has now begun, as readers of today’s Somerset County Gazette will have seen. Among the cuts are an 88% cut in Council funding to the teams that manage the county’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, including the Quantock Hills that partly fall within my Division. In addition, the Household Waste Recycling Sites at Coleford and Middlezoy are proposed for closure and we all know what happened when HWRC’s opening hours were cut in 2011; a 70% increase in flytipping and a bill of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Also targeted are £500,000 from the sheltered housing budget, a 15% increase in some bus fares and a £150,000 saving by reducing strategic transport planning to the legal minimum. A £3.6m cut in the budget for home, residential and nursing care is also being proposed over 3 years. These and other changes are set to lead to 100 job losses.
While there will be opportunities to make the delivery of Council services more efficient, and I welcome such action, most of the savings proposed will have a direct adverse impact on frontline services. And it doesn’t have to be like this. As I have argued before, there is a very real opportunity for Somerset to increase its funding by persuading central Government to fund fairly rural councils. Urban authorities receive 50% more in central grant funding per head than their rural counterparts and we ought to be joining the growing campaign for fair funding. The Conservative administration at Somerset County Council has belatedly found its voice in arguing for fair funding when it comes to flooding but not in respect of all the other services that the Council provides. Why? You can read more about this here.
The cut to the budgets of the AONB teams seems to me to be particularly bone-headed given that the Council’s funding leverages in many times more in funding from other bodies, all of which is now under threat. Particularly galling is the fact that these cuts come on top of the Council’s scrapping of its Countryside Team last year. Just before 2013’s Council elections John Osman, Council Leader, defended the abolition of the Countryside Team by saying that the Council would in fact be retaining ‘a rather large countryside group.’ It turned out that he was talking about the AONB teams. Despite the fact that they only cover 7% of Somerset, even they are now under threat from his axe. Yet more broken election promises. If, like the Vice-Chairman of the County Council, you don’t know what the AONB teams do for us, have a look at the Quantock Hills AONB Service’s website to get a better understanding.
If you are concerned about the continuing cuts to frontline services, then write to your County Councillor and tell them to sign up to the Rural Fair Share campaign. You can find your County Councillor by entering your postcode here.